In a New Novel, Apathetic Teenagers Usher in the Apocalypse
The four horsemen of Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s apocalypse “were all born after the fall of the wall but before the fall of the towers.” His debut novel, Echo of the Boom, is a dystopian romp with Pynchonesque ambitions. The end is nigh, and yet its harbingers are not the authoritarian regimes of the East or the dysfunctional democracies of the West, but rather the apathy of the youth.
The story crosses continents, but is rooted in the privileged, adolescent world of Washington, D.C.’s northwest quadrant. Neely-Cohen makes his case for world-ending malaise through his horsemen: Efram, the son of an imprisoned financier; Molly, the daughter of a survivalist; Steven, a troubled teenage boy who globetrots with his father, an ex-spy; and Chloe, the despotic queen bee of LeMay Senior High School.
With alternating chapters, the novel takes us on a frenetic journey through the perspectives of these unlikely apocalyptos. In the opening scene, a 10-year old Steven notices an unattended backpack in a train station. His macabre intuition supposes a bomb and imagines the potential devastation: “There’s the blast, and then the wave hits the body … It’s the air that tears you apart. Not the fire, but the boom.”
Always, doom’s long shadow casts itself across Neely-Cohen’s pages. Throughout the book there is a continual refrain: “Four years before the end …” or “The day before the end …” and so forth. This might prove tiresome in less capable hands, but Neely-Cohen successfully counterbalances his dour drumbeat with pointed insights about what it means to come of age in the opening of the 21st century. When describing Chloe’s Machiavellian hold over LeMay Senior High School, he notes: “Part of the secret to Chloe’s success was that she got decent grades. Educational institutions associate bad social behavior with bad academic behavior … [Chloe] wondered how many teenage rapists got away with it by being National Merit Scholars.”
Information technology is center stage here, playing an essential role in the looming End of Days. Due to serial online pranking which borders on civil disobedience, the wealthy Efram is expelled from multiple schools. With his family lawyer litigating the principals along the way, he laments a bygone age of hands-on bullying: “Efram would love, love, sometime, just once, to be tripped or punched in the face in front of a jeering laughing crowd. It sounded fun. Meaningful … At the most, someone would call you gay again and again, or tell you that no one liked you. Unless you were actually gay. Then you were alright.” But even getting kicked out of school isn’t enough of a real experience for Efram. He soon invents the “Efram Daniels Expulsion Index (EDEI) … a hybrid futures and prediction market.” This online game becomes wildly popular. The commodity being sold is, actually, Efram. The thrill, or speculation, is how long his academic career will last at any given institution.
Efram soon lands at LeMay Senior High School, where he meets Chloe. The two find common cause in overcoming their demons. Although Chloe dominates the student body by day, at night insomnia dominates her. Her dreams are haunted by visions of nuclear war, and she attempts to overcome these portents by playing Tetris, having been told that if you play enough you dream in Tetris blocks, a specious goal in and of itself.
By the end of the novel, the horsemen’s narratives are woven together. Dissatisfied within their respective lives, their shared goal is the search for meaning, in anything. But this search ironically drives them to bring on the Apocalypse they fear. While at a Bible retreat, a friend tells Molly, the survivalist’s daughter: “Every generation there’d be four people … waiting for the end of days. Over thousands of years they’d be born and die having never gotten their chance. But they’d keep popping up, designed for that purpose, and eventually, one set of four would get their chance.”
This is an ambitious novel. The characters are distinctly of their time, and so in many ways is the story’s message: The “echo of the boom” is what kills. It’s not the fire, but the apathy. A no thing. Just the vacuous pressure of our lives moving too quickly. Neely-Cohen has successfully imagined four horsemen who travel on such a wind.